Turning the internet on itself

The internet has improved our lives in so many ways. However, the way it is homogenizing society poses a threat to the future of indigenous communities all over the world. Photographer Jimmy Nelson is determined to subvert the trend.

Jimmy Nelson is a man on a mission. After a traumatic schooling experience, in which the stress brought on a case of alopecia that made his hair fall out at the age of 16, he turned his back on the mainstream at 17 and lived for two years in Tibet dressed as a monk. 

“It was basically to find empathy from other humans,” says Nelson. “What I found was a group of people who had been oppressed by the Chinese state and with whom I discovered a rich compassion – it didn’t matter what I had, how I looked or spoke – as a human being I was valuable and that was what brought me back to life. I took some of the photos of those people who were kind to me, and that led to what I have done ever since.” 

In practice, that has involved Nelson traveling all over the world, for almost his entire adult life, taking photos of indigenous populations. “I’m not an anthropologist, I’m not an ethnologist, and I have no qualifications other than a deep passion in the value I see in these people, that in many ways is far more valuable than what we have in the developed world. And I’m doing my very best to talk about that.” 

In essence, Nelson’s mission is to help people in these remote communities around the world realize the richness and authenticity of their own cultures at a time when the internet hasn’t necessarily just been a force for good. 

“I’ve spent last 35 years looking for the last authentic cultures traveling around the farthest corners of the globe and met people and communities who still celebrate themselves and their rich culture. I started to celebrate that and document it, but in doing so I have witnessed as years went by how things have started to change. They started to lose that identity and started to become confused, asking ‘are we poor? Are we backward?’ The internet is fantastic, but its homogenizing the planet – they don’t understand their wealth or have that objectivity. How can I say to them, that whilst they move into the future, please please don’t abandon your authenticity and wealth, all that knowledge? I’m trying to help them understand that they have the right to everything we have, but be aware that it’s not the answer to everything.”

Nelson has published his photos in various forms over the years, including two books, Homage to Humanity, and Before They Pass Away. He has also established a charity, the Jimmy Nelson Foundation, part of which encourages people to share their own photos as well as providing cameras for native communities to document their own lives. 

The next part of the plan, that Nelson unveiled at House of Scandinavia in Austin, involves using the most advanced technology. “The Preservation Robot” will gather all these photos and share them across a myriad of digital platforms, using AI technology.  

“For me our main motive is about giving back,” says Nelson. “By doing what we do, we are facilitating the communities to document themselves and create a visual global platform of their heritage.” 

It’s quite an aspiration to have, but via stunning photography and an undeniably fierce commitment, you only have to listen to Jimmy Nelson for 10 minutes to realize his quest and passion will keep him going for as long as he can keep on traveling. 

Find out more at jimmynelson.com



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